O the mind, mind has mountains
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
From death in valleys preserve me, O Lord
Robert Macfarlane (p. 9)
Have men and women, throughout the long stretches of human history, taken to the mountains the way we do in our time and ethos? Have white crowned peaks, rock diadems and spear spires always drawn the curious, energetic, skilled and interested? Have mountains always been a place of allure, delight, charm and attraction? Or, is the passion for the mountains and out of doors hiking, climbing and glacier traverses more a product of the last few centuries? If this is the case, why is it? And, deeper yet, what are the reasons (complicated and diverse though they might be) that women and men take to the mountains, challenging rock rims and high perched peaks?
Mountains of the Mind attempts, in a variety of ways, to answer these questions. Such abiding questions, though, are not merely answered from the safe confines of the academic and library chair. Robert Macfarlane, to his credit, attempts to scale the peaks of such answers from a variety of routes. Macfarlane is Scottish, a climber and international in experience and interest. He has taken to many peaks, and his answers to the questions raised above emerge both from within himself and the multiple voices from those who have taken to the peaks in the past. Mountains of the Mind is as much about the internal ascents, hard places, difficult routes, worrisome crevasses, long trails, fears and insecurities that dog one and all as it is about the external and hard realities of real mountains and packed snow places.
Mountains of the Mind is divided into 9 compact and enticing chapters: 1) Possession, 2) The Great Stone Book, 3) The Pursuit of Fear, 4) Glaciers and Ice: The Streams of Time, 5) Altitude: The Summit and the View, 6) Walking off the Map, 7) A New Heaven and a New Earth, 8) Everest and 9) The Snow Hare. Each of these compelling chapters, story told well, draws the reader more and more into the world of mountain lore and legend and the reasons why many turn to such places.
Macfarlane is never shy about telling his tale and trips to the high regions, his conscious and subconscious reasons for turning to such alluring and evocative places and what other mountains have taught him about such a journey. Mountains of the Mind is also about cultural shifts that began in the 17th-18th centuries in the west, and how such cultural shifts have converted still and silent rocks into places of peak bagging and spiritual pilgrimages.
Macfarlane, to some degree, follows the earlier thesis of Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (1959), in tracking and tracing the interest in mountaineering to the 17th-18th centuries. Many of the literary clues that Nicolson has provided in her classic work were followed by Macfarlane in Mountains of the Mind. Both Nicolson and Macfarlane are aware that mountains have played a substantive role in classical cultures, but the general and widespread fascination with mountains and the environment that holds and draws many today is a new phenomenon. It is this broader interest in the mountains (and what it means for new cultural ways of seeing and being) that interests Nicolson and Macfarlane. The difference between these two, though, is that Nicolson in Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory studied this shift from an academic, historic and literary perspective, whereas Macfarlane is interested in these areas, but he is equally interested from the perspective of the mountaineer, also.
The final 2 chapters in Mountains of the Mind draw this fine book together in a suggestive way. Macfarlane ponders, in chapter 8 (Everest) why George Mallory was drawn so irresistibly and fatally to Everest. Each of the three trips is discussed in some detail, and Macfarlane amply illustrates that he has read most of Mallory’s letters and journals well. Why would Mallory leave his wife and three young children for some barren rocks and hard ice and snow peaks? What was the fatal attraction? What was the draw and history of those who had gone before Mallory that prepared this young Galahad to give his life to an unforgiving and ancient slab of frigid and frozen white at the very crest of the world? ‘Everest’ is a fine chapter. Macfarlane probes and probes the mind of Mallory, and, by doing so, the minds of all those who turn to the peaks to discover the reasons for the drive to such isolated and barren places.
Why did this become both an addiction and tragic attraction for Mallory? Why did he need to be the first to stand on the peak of Everest, and what were the more important things he sacrificed in the process? Macfarlane attempts to answer these sorts of questions in the penultimate chapter in Mountains of the Mind. It is these inner mountains of the mind, in the end, that are the most interesting to traverse, and Macfarlane, roped well, does take to such heights, the dead Mallory his guide.
The final chapter, ‘The Snow Hare’, is the most illusive and compelling. Macfarlane, on the peaks of a whiteout summit, meets a snow hare. Needless to say, such a meeting has all sorts of mythic meanings. Macfarlane allows the reader to unpack the metaphor from such an occurrence. It reminds me of the time I was sitting on a mountainside, and 2 white deer momentarily appeared, approached me, then disappeared. Such moments are quite magical, and rare is the experience.
If some concerns might be raised about this book, and there are some to be pondered, the primary one might be the way Marfarlane, like Nicolson before him, has tended to see the substantial shift in the way we see mountains in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both Nicolson and Macfarlane offer a fleeting nod to the Classical western tradition (albeit in a spotty and questionable way), but neither delve into the deeper and older attitudes towards the mountains in both the western and eastern traditions. This much older line and lineage can be corrected by a read of Sacred Mountains of the World (1990), by Edwin Bernbaum. Sacred Mountains of the World is a stunning visual tour with an insightful text as a hiking companion. In short, the larger cultural shifts in the way we see mountains that Nicolson and Macfarlane linger so long at do need to be checked and corrected by the more compelling, older and convincing work of Bernbaum in Sacred Mountains of the World.
Mountains of the Mind is a must read, and for those of us who are Canadians and belong to the Alpine Club of Canada, there are some interesting comments from Mallory about Edward Wheeler and the 1921 attempt to climb Everest.